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Fostering a Productive Dialogue on Race, Social Justice, and School Reform

In late January 2017, about two dozen education leaders gathered to discuss the intersection between race, social justice, and school reform at a roundtable hosted by the American Enterprise Institute and NewSchools Venture Fund, and inspired by the previously published forum on race, social justice, and school reform in Education Next. The diverse group included individuals of different races, ethnicities, and political perspectives and with a variety of roles in education organizations. What follows is a summary of our conversation and a record of our commitment to engage in respectful and productive dialogue.

 

Introduction

Each of us is deeply engaged in efforts to improve the education of young people in the United States, and we recognize the complexities of the task. We agree that all children—regardless of their backgrounds—deserve an education that meets their needs and that our systems of education are not working as well as they should for students of all incomes, races, and geographies.

We nonetheless differ in how we diagnose, prioritize, and address the challenges in education, in some cases reflecting very real differences in values and ideals. We did not reach consensus or resolve these tensions during our discussion; that was not our goal. We believe that consensus on such thorny issues would more likely signal superficial conciliation than productive deliberation. Instead, we sought to better understand the breadth of perspectives in the room and identify some practices that will better enable collaboration and promote the useful exchange of ideas.

We have different interpretations of the problems in education and therefore vary in our goals and approaches.

We recognize that black, Latino, Pacific Islander, and American Indian students have, on average, lower educational achievement and attainment than their white and Asian peers. We also know that these broad categories can mask variation within groups, such as the differential outcomes among students of different Asian nationalities. Most agree that a student’s socioeconomic status explains only some of the achievement gap, suggesting racial injustice is a separate, additional factor. We also recognize the particular needs of the Hispanic community and many other ethnic communities, whose experience in the United States is distinct from that of African Americans but whose children also face disadvantages inside and outside the classroom. Yet we differ in how we interpret and address these inequities.

Some participants have dedicated themselves to education to address the racial achievement gap. Among these participants, there are divergent viewpoints on how to do so. Do we best address inequity by ensuring that students of color have access to a rigorous, content-rich curriculum or that they attend schools that affirm their racial and ethnic identities through culturally responsive instruction? Are the two mutually exclusive? Many participants agreed that their work will not be complete until students have access to both.

Other participants indicated that their work in education is on behalf of all students. They worry that the education community’s increasing emphasis on policies and practices tailored to students of color runs counter to their belief that we should work to provide rigorous, high-quality education to every student. Some suggested that increasing the salience of race might in fact exacerbate racial grievances, divide us from one another, and lead us to dismiss other communities that are very much in need. Others mentioned that when we focus on specific groups it ignores the fact that our public education system is not working as well as it should for most students. Some people expressed frustration that, when they raise these questions, they are sometimes viewed as racist; they believe this assumption reflects the very biases we all seek to transcend.

There are costs and benefits to positioning educational improvement as part of the broader pursuit of social justice.

Another area of friction that emerged during our discussion is the relationship between social justice and education. Some voiced frustration with colleagues who view social justice issues—such as poverty, criminal justice, and immigration—as distractions from the core work of improving education. These individuals argued that social justice issues should be part and parcel of efforts to improve education. They believe that to pursue one without the other has little chance of success and challenged their colleagues’ assumption that they bring social justice into education debates as part of a broader political agenda. Instead, they view these issues as ubiquitous in their classrooms and the communities they serve, and they believe that high-quality classroom instruction demands recognition of the contextual issues that affect students and their ability to learn.

Some participants countered that policy issues often associated with social justice can divert attention and energy from necessary reforms that target the work of improving instruction and educational outcomes. Some believe different views on how to tackle social justice issues also exacerbate differences in our political philosophies and make it more difficult to make progress on areas of agreement.

Many expressed feelings of marginalization in discussions of education policy and practice.

Numerous participants who describe their political beliefs as “conservative” or “right of center” noted the disdain they have felt from colleagues in recent years. Eight years of a Democratic administration and activist US Department of Education left many with conservative views feeling alienated. In addition, some conservatives see an increasing alignment between the education reform community and the rhetoric, issues, and groups typically affiliated with the progressive left. A few right-of-center participants have felt pressured by those on the left that, to remain in the reform coalition, they must embrace progressive positions regardless of whether they hold opposing principles.

Participants acknowledged the general discomfort conservatives described, but noted that this sense of being marginalized or even derided is also a familiar experience for people of color. They highlighted some of the racial dynamics in the education reform community that have often made them feel like outsiders. For instance, they noted deep unease when white reformers shape policies and practices affecting predominantly black or Latino communities without engaging families or understanding their needs, and they reminded reformers that words like “militant” and “radical” can carry racial undertones and make black reformers question whether their white colleagues truly respect them. In addition, many participants noted that working with those who use this type of language can not only put black reformers at odds with activists within their own ethnic communities but also inadvertently embolden fringe groups.

Our conversation exposed some miscommunications, often rooted in false assumptions or different definitions of key terms.

It became clear throughout our conversation that, to foster better understanding, it is essential to avoid generalities and be specific. For instance, participants identified the need to avoid “putting people into boxes” based on their racial identity, political beliefs, or the professional company they keep. One individual noted that just because a person is black does not mean that he or she is a progressive. Another explained that the left-right binary in politics fails to capture the nuances of many people’s political beliefs; for instance, some indicated their own beliefs put them on the left on some issues and on the right on others.

In several instances, participants noted that shorthand terminology or expressions can make it difficult to pin down where we agree and where we do not. For instance, some participants seemed to have different ideas about what issues are included under the umbrella of social justice—health care, immigration, criminal justice, or opioid abuse among the white working class? Other participants questioned whether the group had a common definition of equity and whether the group was conflating social justice with identity politics. Many in the room believe that the word “movement” is misapplied in education because efforts to improve the policy and practice of education have often failed to engage families and parents. Finally, one participant introduced “targeted universalism” as a term and concept that challenges the dichotomy between serving all students and tailoring policies to the needs of specific student populations.

The group did not stop mid-discussion to parse the meaning of various labels or terms, but recognized how oversimplification and the lack of specificity can cause confusion.

These tensions have implications for our goals, tactics, and coalitions.

The group discussed how their disagreements about end goals and theories of change influence whether and how they might work together to advance ideas, policies, and practices on which they do agree. One individual noted that his primary interest is finding out when it is possible to work together, on a small slice of issues, for a small stretch of time.

In terms of tactical political efforts, some participants discussed how race-based framing might alienate Republican lawmakers and suggested that appealing to the white middle class could help make reform efforts more politically sustainable. They noted that those who disagree on the issue of vouchers can and should still work together when they agree on charters and that honest disagreement on Friday should not forestall collaboration on Monday. Finally, they expressed optimism that the reform community could leverage diverse viewpoints to build a more effective and inclusive coalition.

It is neither possible nor necessary to agree on everything. In fact, some participants reminded us that while we often talk about bipartisanship as though it has been strategic and broad, in reality most policy changes in the past 20 years were the result of tactical alliances on very specific issues. Participants expressed a willingness to work together whenever interests align, while being upfront and transparent about areas of disagreement that preclude collaboration.

Despite the tensions and differences described above, it became clear throughout our day together that every person in the room considers their work in education deeply personal. Some were anguished that colleagues overgeneralized or misunderstood their views or questioned their motives. Others shared personal stories of how limited access to educational opportunity directly affected their own lives. Improving the life outcomes of students is not only a profession but also a calling.

A Commitment to Respectful, Productive Dialogue

People come into the work of improving education with a variety of perspectives, and we believe our pluralism can be a strength rather than a weakness. We also know that in the course of conveying our views, we sometimes fall short. At times, our public discourse has poorly represented the views of those with whom we disagree, questioned their motives, or veered into personal criticism. Social media exacerbates these negative dynamics. These instances do not advance our important debates and are a poor service to those who look to us for leadership. We aim to do better.

It is in this spirit, then, that we commit to some norms for working together when we agree and for ensuring a productive discussion when we do not.

  • Practice Humility. We concede the limits of our own knowledge, admit that our understanding of an issue may be incorrect or incomplete, and commit to exploring disagreements with open minds.
  • Check Assumptions. We will not make assumptions about a person’s beliefs or ascribe malicious intent to those who hold views that conflict with our own.
  • Avoid Caricature. We will seek to represent our opponents’ arguments in terms they would recognize and avoid overly simplistic characterizations of their views.
  • Pick Our Battles. We will not shy away from important disagreements and debates, but neither will we amplify a conflict for the sake of settling scores.
  • Practice Courtesy. We will address personal disagreements through private conversation, limit our arguments to the issues, and refrain from personal gibes.
  • Affirm Common Values. At times of passionate disagreement, we will affirm each other’s sincere and heartfelt dedication to improving education and expanding opportunity for young people.
  • Build Relationships. We understand the importance of building relationships across differences and will seek to build trust with people we spar with in the public discourse.

Practicing these norms may make us uncomfortable at times. As public voices in the debates about education policy and practice, we acknowledge it is our responsibility to bear that discomfort, model a spirit of generosity, and hold our disagreements in hand while we continue to work together to provide students with the education they need and deserve.

Stacey Childress
Frederick M. Hess
Meghan Amrofell
John Bailey
Elisa Villanueva Beard
Derrell Bradford
Jason Crye
John Deasy
Howard Fuller
Kaya Henderson
Lindsay Hill
Bob Hughes
Frances Messano
Mildred Otero
Brittany Packnett
Michael J. Petrilli
Robert Pondiscio
Nina Rees
Marilyn Rhames
Andrew J. Rotherham
Stefanie Sanford
Andy Smarick
Marc Sternberg
Chris Stewart

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